Crowded fields, strong incumbents in City Council races

The incumbent ditched a mayoral bid at the last minute, deciding instead to try to hang on to his seat representing parts of Charles Village, Oliver, Remington and Station North.

His challengers include a community activist who hopes to be the Baltimore City Council's first Latina member, an openly gay neighborhood leader who patrols the streets of Mount Vernon on a Segway and a college senior who has snagged the governor's endorsement. And then there's the labor leader, security guard and East Baltimore activist.

And that's just in one district.

More than 70 candidates are vying for 14 seats on the Baltimore City Council — a job characterized by lengthy meetings, endless calls from residents about vacant homes and rats, and, in the city's strong-mayor form of government, very little political power.

Yet Baltimore's City Council has long been a proving ground for higher elected office. Five of the past six mayors got their starts on the council — as did Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

And council members are able to make the kind of tangible improvements — organizing neighborhood clean-ups or arranging for potholes to be filled — that affect residents most directly.

The council's composition shifts at a glacial pace, with many of the legislators holding onto their seats for decades. When Agnes Welch retired last year after representing West Baltimore for 27 years, her colleagues chose her son and longtime aide, William "Pete" Welch, to replace her, out of courtesy to the elder Welch.

Only one council seat is open this year — an East Baltimore district that has been represented for 20 years by Nicholas D'Adamo. Six Democrats are angling for that seat; Brandon M. Scott, a protege of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is considered the front-runner.

Scott, 27, who covered East Baltimore for Rawlings-Blake's Office of Neighborhoods, has never held public office. But he is backed by the powerful fundraiser Colleen Martin-Lauer, whose clients include O'Malley, Rawlings-Blake and about half of the sitting council.

Power of incumbency

In most of the city's races, the sitting council member faces a crowd of challengers, who are likely to divide the anti-incumbent vote.

For example, Carl Stokes, who was selected by his colleagues to fill the 12th District seat left open when Bernard C. "Jack" Young became council president in February 2010, faces six challengers in the Democratic primary.

Stokes, who had served on the council from 1987 to 2005, had his eye on the mayor's office for much of his current stint on the council. But hours before the July 5 deadline to file to run for city office, he reversed course, dropping his mayoral ambitions and announcing plans to pursue re-election to his seat.

Stokes, who helped found a charter school an East Baltimore, says he wants four more years to advocate for the residents of his district, which includes neighborhoods in the center and east of the city.

"It's a very diverse district," said Stokes. "For a council person, the challenges are giving as much energy as possible to the some of the weaker neighborhoods in the district, yet as the same time maintaining the services to neighborhoods that aren't as needy."

Stokes has been one of the council's more independent members, leveraging his position at the helm of the Taxation and Finance Committee to challenge the hefty tax incentives awarded to large development projects. But some of his efforts — such as a proposal to slash property taxes — drew criticism from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration and little backing from his peers on the council.

Challenging Stokes is an eclectic group of candidates, including many he advised before deciding to jump back in the race.

Campaign signs mark different regions of the district. Orange signs bearing Odette Ramos' name are most prevalent in Charles Village, and even the iconic alien on the roof of a home at Howard and 28th Streets holds a campaign sign for the community activist.

The restaurants and bars in Mount Vernon are emblazoned with red-white-and-blue posters for Jason Curtis, including some signs exhorting residents to support Curtis so that the council includes a gay representative.

Signs for Maryland Institute College of Art film major De'Von Brown are most prominent near his East Baltimore home.

Boy of Baraka

Brown, 21, has the is living in his family's home on the district's east side while studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art on the west side. He wears button-up shirts and khakis to class, in sharp contrast to most of his peers' artily tattered clothes.

He preaches at Zion Baptist Church on Sundays and is a board member at Taharka Brothers, a socially conscious ice cream company that fosters the careers of young men.

"As a product of East Baltimore, I can no longer sit back and allow my generation to be placed on the back burner," said Brown. "I decided to run because the youth in Baltimore City have been undervalued and overlooked for too long."

Brown was featured in the 2005 documentary, "The Boys of Baraka," which chronicled the experiences of four boys plucked from city middle schools and sent to live with host families in Kenya. Even as a 12-year-old, Brown showed unusual maturity, preaching passionately in his church and speaking poignantly about his mother's battles with addiction.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has been a fan of Brown since his Baraka days, has appeared for him twice during the campaign.

Grass-roots organizer

Ramos, 38, who has lived in Charles Village for the past year, is many ways emblematic of that neighborhood's focus on grass-roots organizing. She helped found the Neighborhood Congress, which pushed for a community-focused agenda in the 1999 city election that brought Martin O'Malley to the mayor's office, and was the executive director of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, which came up with a report card to measure the health of the city's neighborhoods.

In 1997, Ramos helped lead efforts to transform a decrepit city library building in the 2600 block of St. Paul Street into the Village Learning Center, a community center that offers classes, computers and garden plots. After the city announced plans to close the library, Ramos helped found a nonprofit to manage the center and raise $700,000 to rehab the building.

"This could happen anywhere in the district," said Ramos. "A council person needs to be a staunch advocate for the district and be the No. 1 fan of the district."

Ramos, who now runs a consulting business that has worked with progressive groups including St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, the Safe and Sound Campaign and the Maryland Disability Law Center, has already drawn high-profile endorsements: Del. Mary Washington, Del. Maggie MacIntosh and Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke have rallied around her campaign.

Ramos says that she would prioritize getting rid of vacant homes if elected. She believes that the "Vacants to Value" program launched by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is a good step, but wants to push the housing department to target vacant houses in the district, particularly in the eastern neighborhoods, more aggressively.

She says she would also start a district council of community leaders and fight for more after-school and summer work and recreation opportunities for youth. And she opposes the state's plan to build a juvenile jail in the eastern part of the district.

"I'm not convinced that we need a youth jail. The statistics don't bear it out," said Ramos. "We really need to invest more on our kids on the front end."

If elected, Ramos, who has Puerto Rican roots, would be the council's first Latina, While nearly three-quarters of the district's residents of voting age are African-American, she believes that she can garner support across racial lines.

Seeking gay support

Curtis, 41, has a lengthy history of community involvement. He came to Baltimore in 2001 to manage the Peabody Court Hotel in Mount Vernon, and became president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Community Association a few years later, a position he still holds. He also chairs the board at the Midtown Community Benefits District.

Signs in Mount Vernon urge patrons at gay bars to support Curtis, who would be the council's only openly gay representative.

Curtis fought successfully for the closure of Suite Ultra Lounge, a bottle club in the basement of the Belvedere building where he lives. The club was associated with some high-profile violent attacks and was considered a neighborhood nuisance.

Curtis also worked to open a children's park on Calvert and Madison Streets, raised money to plant trees throughout Mount Vernon and negotiated with the city over the new homeless shelter on Guilford Street that opened its doors late last month.

Curtis says he would work on "cleaning and greening" issues throughout the district and aggressively work to eradicate vacant commercial properties.

"Whether you make $100,000 a year or $25,000 a year, you still want your street to be clean," he said.

He is a familiar figure in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, where he patrols the streets with police officers on a Segway owned by the community benefits district. The extra police and the Segways are paid for by the community benefits district, which levies a surcharge on property taxes. He says the patrols have brought down crime in the neighborhood and could work in other areas.

"There need to be more programs like we have in Mount Vernon where we actively invite police in," he said. "We are an extra set of eyes and ears."

Curtis, who was registered as a Republican until about six years ago, has been dogged in recent years by legal problems. The Belvedere Condominium Association is suing him over $6,000 in unpaid condo and legal fees; a hearing is set for next month. Curtis said the suit arose from a misunderstanding over how much he owed.

Curtis had a court case last year involving a $5,000 in back Discover card bills. That debt has since been settled, he said.

In 2007, a woman who owned a business in the Belvedere pressed second-degree assault charges against Curtis, but the case was not prosecuted. Curtis said he got into a "verbal altercation" with the woman, but did not touch her, and says that security videos back up his story.

Other candidates in the district include Jermaine Jones, a labor activist whose family is fixing up a block of homes in Oliver; Frank W. Richardson, a Johns Hopkins security officer and community leader; and Ertha Harris, a longtime community organizer.

Other races

In the 12th District, as elsewhere around the city, the incumbent is likely to benefit from a wide field of challengers to break up the anti-incumbent vote.

For example, Welch, who was appointed to fill his mother's former seat, is facing eight opponents, including political science professor John Bullock, Union Square Neighborhood Association President Chris Taylor, teacher Abigail Breseith, and progressive activist Michael Eugene Johnson.

The races that appear most competitive are the ones in which a single strong opponent has emerged to challenge an incumbent.

In West Baltimore's 7th District, Nick Mosby, a video manager at Verizon, is taking on two-term Councilwoman Belinda Conaway.

Mosby, 32, is the past president of the Bolton Park Neighbors Association in Reservoir Hill. He says he wants to expand privately funded programs that bring teachers in growing fields to Baltimore classrooms. He also wants to help homeowners save on property taxes when they move into a larger home in the city.

Mosby has won the support of Rawlings-Blake and Martin-Lauer.

Conaway, daughter of a West Baltimore political dynasty, touts her success in passing legislation that benefits city families, such as a law that require the city to turn off water in vacant homes. She aims to work to help stop foreclosures and aid the victims of lead paint poisoning if re-elected.

She hashed out a compromise between Remington residents and the developers of a Walmart shopping complex last year — although that area was cut from the 7th District under Rawlings-Blake's redistricting plan this year. Reservoir Hill, where Mosby lives, was added to the district.

In Northeast Baltimore, Councilman Bill Henry faces a challenge from Scherod Barnes, former president of the Loch Raven Improvement Association.

Although Henry's constituents give him high marks for responding to their concerns, Barnes has won the endorsement of state Sen. Joan Carter Conway and has Martin-Lauer, the powerful fundraiser, working on his behalf.

Henry, 43, who is running for his second term on the council, backed Conway's opponent in last year's state Senate race.

Barnes, 63, who heads community relations for P. Flanigan & Sons, a road construction company awarded many large city contracts, says he plans to focus on constituent services in the district.

"My running in the City Council is an extension of 34 years of community activism in Northeast Baltimore," he said.

Henry, the only council member to keep an office in his district, says he helped residents with issues while working to improve city government.

"I've been the council person I wanted to have," said Henry, who works in real estate part-time. "I've been responsive to constituent problems … but also focus on citywide issues, not necessarily big splashy things, but things that make the city better.



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